IN HER recently published memoir Hard Choices, former US senator Hillary Clinton recounts the meeting, nine days after the election of 2008, when US president-elect Barack Obama first asked her to be secretary of state.
He “presented a well-considered argument,” she writes, “explaining that he would have to concentrate most of his time and attention on the economic crisis and needed someone of stature to represent him abroad”.
No doubt he meant that sincerely — the US financial system was still deep in crisis — but in the context of events this summer, Obama’s assumption that he would be focused mainly on domestic concerns suggests how little even a president of the US can claim control of world events.
The murders of American journalists James Foley and now Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State have put a very fine point on that.
Few US presidents have faced as many disparate foreign-policy challenges as those that confronted Obama this summer. Last month alone, he managed to help remove the too-sectarian leader of Iraq, helped stand up a more inclusive government there, then launched a campaign of air strikes to support efforts to keep it from folding further into the Islamic State.
The month began with a “green on blue” attack in Afghanistan that cost the life of a US general (the first such casualty in 44 years) and ended with a resumption of political hostilities between presidential candidates that took the Afghan government to the brink of collapse on the eve of the US troop withdrawal.
Meanwhile, “liberated” post-Gadaffi Libya slid further toward chaos, Israel waged war with Hamas in Gaza, and Russia more or less invaded Ukraine.
Last week, while most of that was still going on, the US president was asked at a press conference whether he would seek congressional approval to take action against the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq. He said yes, but it would have to wait until specific plans were fully developed in light of all possible variables: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
Widely and in some places willfully taken out of context to mean “I have no idea what we should do”, that quote was the headline everywhere, the talk of the Sunday morning news shows. Of all the many politicians and pundits to castigate Obama for lack of a detailed battle plan, perhaps the most remarkable was Kentucky’s Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian deeply suspicious of US military action, someone who opposed punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons and who has advocated cutting off all foreign aid.
“If the president has no strategy,” he said, “maybe it’s time for a new president.” If that new president were himself, he said, he would call a joint session of Congress and ask for authorisation to “destroy ISIS militarily.”
In the aftermath of Islamic State’s many outrages against Americans, Iraqis and Syrians alike, the urge to action is natural and proper, as it was after 9/11. Since then more than 6,700 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 50,000 came home wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans died in the wars as well. Some experts plausibly argue that US policies toward Iraq and Syria contributed to the rise of the Islamic State.
Such outcomes, ordinary diligence and building the best conditions for success all argue for the greatest care in developing a strategy for a region that has been so consistently defiant of US intentions.
Conversations on the sidelines of this week’s NATO summit in Wales and direct talks during a trip to the Middle East by secretary of state John Kerry and secretary of defense Chuck Hagel will be aimed at coalition-building, which by all accounts will be critical to defeating the Islamic State.
The tangle of nations who share an interest in Islamic State’s demise suggests reason for hope that military and diplomatic efforts can and will succeed.
The new government in Iraq has already given the region’s most powerful rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, something to agree on.
This week, for the first time since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s deputy foreign minister flew to the Saudi capital Riyadh for talks.
Since any strategy will implicate the fate of Russia’s ally Syria, Moscow too may have a role to play, which could draw US and EU policy toward Vladimir Putin and Ukraine into the diplomatic calculus.
In short, the global chessboard has never been more three-dimensional, fraught with both peril and potential.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, former Hillary Clinton observed that the Obama administration’s foreign policy watchword — “don’t do stupid stuff” — was “not an organising principle,” which is true enough.
But given past results and present complications of US policy in the Middle East, it is at least the right place to start.
If the forthcoming plan of military and diplomatic attack on the Islamic State manages only to avoid the unintended consequences of previous Western interventions in the region, that will be a strategy worth waiting for.